In the middle of Parashat Baha’alotecha, the Torah narrative is abruptly and strangely split by two verses that seem totally out of context. The Israelite camp set forth, for the first time since the Giving of the Torah, from Mount Sinai, and the verses briefly describe the journey. Then, an inverted letter nun appears in the Torah scroll, and the Torah describes the declaration that Moshe would make when the Ark departed on its travels into the wilderness and then it describes the one he would make when it arrived at its destination. Another inverted nun follows in the Torah scroll, then the narrative resumes with the unfortunate incident of the people’s complaining and the plague that subsequently ensued. What is the purpose of recording Moshe’s declarations specifically here, between these two passages, and why are they flanked by the peculiarly flipped letter?
The Rabbis of the Talmud debate the significance of this anomaly, but the explanation of Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel (c. 10 BCE – 70 CE) stands out (Shabbat 115) for a lesson it teaches. He is of the opinion that in the future, in the days of the Mashiach, Moshe’s declarations will be relocated to a more appropriate location in the Torah. They are only written here to interrupt between the puraniot, the calamities, and this is what the inverted letters allude to. But which calamities is the Talmud referring to? The second calamity that necessitates an interruption is the clearly negative incident of the complaining that immediately follows the interruption. The first calamity, however, is not at all evident, since no misfortune whatsoever seems to occur before it. There is, rather, an uneventful description a segment of one of the nation’s many journeys. According to the medieval Talmudic commentary Tosafot, the Talmud is referring to the calamity of the nation’s all too eager departure from Mount Sinai. Tosafot cites a Midrashic comment to the same effect: “They travelled away from Mount Sinai [where they had received the Torah], covering a distance that normally takes three days in only one day’s time – like a child running out of school.” It is enlightening that neither of these two mishaps involved formally sinful acts, and no particular commandments were broken. They involved, primarily, behavior that revealed a problematic underlying attitude. The correct emotional reaction to experiencing the Almighty’s first and only communication with mankind on a large scale – and the revelation of His expectations for them – is a feeling of appreciation, a feeling of being fortunate, and feeling of eagerness to demonstrate more-than-full compliance and cooperation. Their emotional reaction was, however, to flee the scene as soon as possible and never look back – a reaction that indicated their lack of eagerness and appreciation for what they experienced and were given. The second calamity was also of a similar ilk, just it involved a more general deficiency in gratitude for their redemption from servitude and subsequent Divine care in the desert. The combined negativity of the written record of two episodes that demonstrate this severely faulty attitude could not be countenanced, and the Torah had to find some way of dividing them – however awkward and unnatural of a division it may prove to be.
The role of attitude in Judaism and in life cannot be ignored. It is undeniable that actions and behavior play a primary role in the Torah’s worldview. At the same time, it is clear that the Torah does not seek mindless or heartless robotic obedience, either. As the Talmud succinctly says elsewhere, “The All Merciful One wants heart.” It is possible, to some extent, to be a wicked saint or a righteous sinner. A person can do everything right but have a rotten core, and a person can fall prey to sin or indolence but his heart may nevertheless be in the right place – and that is worth something. Aside from serving as a divider, the unusual interruption of Moshe’s Ark declarations calls attention to the importance of our hearts always being in the right place.